The New Pope

An Orthodox View


It struck me, watching the coverage of John Paul II’s death and the election of Joseph Ratzinger as Benedict XVI, that non-Catholics were generally more inclined to praise the late pope and to feel somewhat welcoming toward his successor than many Catholics were. There are good reasons for both the positive and the wary-if not downright negative-reactions. John Paul II did more to reach out to Jews, Muslims, and Eastern Orthodox Christians than any of his predecessors. Of course, his way was paved by John XXIII and Paul VI, but his achievement was nevertheless undeniable. As an Orthodox, I can say that the openness demonstrated in Ut unum sint was appreciated by at least some Orthodox. The French Orthodox theologian Olivier Clement published a cordial response in You Are Peter (New City Press, 2003). I am sorry that John Paul’s relationship with the Moscow Patriarchate was not a good one, but it wasn’t helped by Rome’s insensitive creation of new dioceses in Russia, done without consulting a church she called, at times, a “sister.” That’s no way to treat family. Still, John Paul’s relations with the Ecumenical Patriarchate were much better, and his desire for reconciliation genuine, even if he seems often not to have understood the Orthodox point of view. That genuineness was what non-Catholics appreciated, as they appreciated his role-a major one-in the fall of communism. There is little doubt that Benedict XVI, given his record as a theologian and cardinal, will continue in this direction. But in the attitudes of both men toward internal Catholic matters there is something many Orthodox find a bit disturbing. While the outreach to other religions is most welcome, the style of internal church governance is less so. The emergence of the idea of collegiality during the Second Vatican Council struck a sympathetic chord in many Orthodox observers. Orthodox governance is conciliar, as was governance in the ancient church, and a return to this sensibility after a millennium of Roman centralization was promising, as was a return to patristic sources and a turning away from an almost exclusively Thomistic official Catholic theology. And John Paul II, with his knowledge of contemporary philosophy, seemed committed to learning from (for example) twentieth-century phenomenology, even as he respected the ancient and medieval sources. But under John Paul the Catholic Church moved away from the conciliarity that had shown signs of development under Paul VI; authority was recentralized, and there was a move away from the authority of bishops, and of bishops’ councils. Collegiality was a principle, but not really a practice. Then there was the way in which theological controversies were handled. Catholics were told that the idea of women’s ordination could not even be discussed: it was not, Rome said, in the church’s power to make a change in that direction. I can’t help contrasting this with the atmosphere in Orthodoxy. While women are not about to be ordained by any Orthodox bishop, and I have little doubt that the majority of our bishops would oppose the ordination of women, such prominent Orthodox as the late Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh (Anthony Bloom) and Bishop Kallistos of Diokeleia (Kallistos Ware) have said in recent years that Orthodox must face this question seriously, and Metropolitan Anthony made it clear that he was in favor of women’s ordination. I understand what John Paul and the then Cardinal Ratzinger thought they were up against. The latter got much negative press when he spoke about the dangers of relativism in his homily at the beginning of the conclave. He has a point, one also made in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 2000 statement Dominus Iesus, a document he had much to do with. The tone of that statement was unduly negative. Still, it was right to say that theologians move away from Christian orthodoxy when they suggest that salvation can be found independently from Christ-which is not to say that only Christians or only Catholics can be saved, as some newspaper accounts wrongly suggested Dominus Iesus had said. It is rather to say that if anyone is saved, it is because of what Jesus did on the cross and in rising from the dead. If he did not save everyone, he did not save anyone. The tone, though, of Dominus Iesus was unnecessarily condescending toward other Christian traditions and to non-Christian religions. And then there is the way some theologians were handled: silencing and excommunication (in the case of the Sri Lankan theologian Tissa Balasuriya, who was reinstated a year later) could have been avoided. It should be enough simply to say that such and such is not Catholic theology, and it does not seem unreasonable to say that it may not be represented as such. To Orthodox and other observers, the Vatican’s “shut up and submit” attitude looks too much like the authoritarianism anti-Catholics have always charged the Roman church with. The question raised by John Paul II in Ut unum sint-is there a way the Petrine ministry could be exercised that would be acceptable or of some service to Orthodox and other Christians?-is an important one. A couple of answers: as long as it includes the idea that all power flows from Rome, and that all power to appoint or remove bishops is centered there, and none is based in local churches, no. As long as the idea of papal infallibility is in place, with its implication that the pope is a bishop uniquely unlike any other bishop, no. An authority which simply hands things down is not authoritative but in fact truly irresponsible. Persuasion is essential in a world where people increasingly leave Christianity, not usually for some other religion (though the movement of many Latin Americans from Catholicism to Pentecostalism is a serious challenge), but more often for nothing at all. There are depths beyond dogma; there is a profound, divine silence from which dogma is born, and it is also the place from which a deep listening may be done. A pope who could listen, who could truly understand (even as he disagrees with) the many currents of thought in the whole of the Christian tradition, would be helpful, would be exercising the ministry of the servant of the servants of God. He has to do more than listen, of course, but that deep listening-to which Benedict XVI alluded in his first homily as pope-is an essential beginning.

Published in the 2005-05-20 issue: 

John Garvey was an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal, and author of Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.

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